God's Justice in Forgiveness
1 John 1:8-10
If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.…

Any consideration of the justice of forgiveness must be based upon a true estimate of what sin is, and what punishment is. We must clearly recognise that sin is evil in itself and in its inherent effects and not merely evil by the arbitrary decree of the lawgiver. Sin is that which is absolutely bad for man, and generally speaking it is not bad because forbidden, but forbidden because bad. When man sins he is doing something unworthy of himself, something contrary to nature, (if by nature we understand the original nature in which God first created him). Sin being thus man's evil, the good God, because He is good, will do all that is possible to keep His children from sin. And one of the ways of keeping man from sin is by ordaining punishment for sin. Punishment is made conditional on sin in three ways. Sometimes it is simply a sentence pronounced upon sin by arbitrary decree. Sometimes it is the fruit of sin, growing out of and resulting from the sin, in the nature of things. Sometimes it is the sin itself intensified, robbed of its pleasure and pressed as a burden and a curse upon the man. For example: if a schoolboy is habitually idle and neglects his studies we may trace out a retribution connected with the sin in each of these three several ways.

1. The master punishes the boy for his idleness. This is a punishment which conies a simple sentence upon the sin, not as a natural or necessary consequence of the sin.

2. A worse retribution comes upon the boy when he grows up. He finds himself not fitted for the position in life which he might have occupied if he had had a better education.

3. He may experience a still more terrible punishment, he did not learn industry at school and his idleness clings to him all his life. Thus he has a triple punishment. I may give you from the Bible an allusion to each of these. For the first case we have the sentence pronounced upon the murderer in Genesis (Genesis 9:6). For the second we may think of idleness leading to want, that natural law endorsed by St. Paul when he wrote (2 Thessalonians 2:10). For the third we may take the solemn sentence (Revelation 22:11). With this third class of punishment the human legislator and the human judge have little or nothing to do. God alone can make sin to be its own punishment. With the second class the legislator rather than the judge is concerned, lest unwise legislation should promote wrong doing by viciously shielding the offender from the natural consequences of his sin. The first class of punishment, attending upon the wisdom of the lawgiver and the sentence of the judge, is that which man can ordinarily inflict or remit. And it is in studying the application of such punishment that we shall find that human justice which is to be a light to show us something of Divine justice. God's ordinance in punishment may operate to keep men from sin in either of two ways:(1) by exhibiting God's sense of the badness of sin, and so training men to see for themselves the badness of sin, and to avoid it; or(2) by holding forth retribution as a terror, that those who are too degraded to recognise the evil of sin may be deterred from sin by fear of the evil which they do recognise, the evil of pain or loss. This is the purpose of righteous punishment. However wicked a person may be, to inflict pain or loss upon him, which is not calculated to do some good in the way of remedying sin, either by reforming the particular offender or by deterring others from wrong, would be torture, not correction, cruelty and not righteousness. It follows that if the end which punishment is designed to accomplish has been attained by some other means, punishment becomes unrighteous, for it is only the end which justifies our infliction of pain or loss; upon our brother. If no good will come either to the individual or to the world from our inflicting the punishment, it is right to remit the punishment. This surely must be the key to our interpretation of the statement that God is righteous or just to forgive us our sins. If His justice is analogous to man's justice then His purpose in punishment is to exhibit His own sense of the sinfulness of sin and to deter from sin. It is plain that before He can remit the punishment which we deserve, some other means must be taken to show the world how God esteems sin. It is plain that the lesson of God's true regard for sin must be learned by the sinner, and it must produce in him the penitence which will restrain him from sin. A simple gospel of the forgiveness of the penitent without the death of Christ would not have fulfilled these three conditions. If the gospel proclaims the remission of the punishment which was to evidence God's condemnation of sin, this evidence must be displayed to the world in some other way. It is displayed from the Cross of Christ. God exhibits the deathliness of sin, not in the death of the sinner but in the death of Christ. But the sinner to be forgiven must have learnt this lesson. Here you see the necessity of faith in Christ crucified as a condition of pardon. And your faith in the Cross must produce penitence: otherwise there is nothing to supply the place of punishment to deter from sin. But it is obvious that if the final penalty of sin is not merely attached to it by arbitrary decree, but is something which follows as the fruit and consequence of sin, the pardon which is given us must be something more than an arbitrary warrant of acquittal; it must involve in some way a change in our spiritual growth and bearing; for the fig tree cannot bear olive berries neither the vine figs, nor can sin grow into holiness nor a wicked heart bear fruit unto eternal life. This teaches us again that repentance is an absolute necessity as a condition of pardon. Perhaps we may sometimes have thought of repentance as a condition arbitrarily imposed: we may have said that God does not choose to forgive us unless we repent. But in the light of our present consideration this would seem to be an imperfect statement of the case. We must rather say that in the nature of things (if punishment is the growth and fruit of sin) there can be no such thing as the remission of punishment without a change — a conversion — of the man. It is this thought of sin becoming ultimately its own punishment that stands in the way of a belief in a universal restoration, a universal salvation. But even if we take the other view of hell and think of it simply as pain arbitrarily imposed as a penalty for sin and capable of being arbitrarily withdrawn, there is yet an objection to our believing in any ultimate restoration. We might, of course, believe that when a sufficiency of punishment has been inflicted, the soul might then be delivered from hell. But what then? If it be still evil, it will be a hell TO ITSELF. Yet again, the good God will do all that may be for us; for He is just to forgive us our sins. But it may be said — if the forgiveness of our sins is thus a matter of justice, what have we to do with prayer for pardon? God will forgive us if it is right: He will not forgive us if it is not right to forgive us. What is the use of confession and prayer? The answer is, that the right or wrong of forgiveness depends on the disposition of the sinner. Has he or has he not learned the lesson of the Cross? Is he or is he not firmly convinced of the deathliness of sin? that it is an evil upon which God cannot look with indifference? that it is and ever must be the object of God's wrath and condemnation? And if the sinner is in that state of heart and mind which makes forgiveness fit for him, then confession and prayer are the spontaneous expression of his penitence.

(W. A. Whitworth, M. A.)

Parallel Verses
KJV: If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.

WEB: If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.

God's Justice in Forgiveness
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